Text by Christine Madden Set design⁄Katie Fotis Photos⁄Catherine Losing
Inside the Room of Stillness, there’s no sound from the outside world. Triple-glazed windows stretch from floor to ceiling, treating hotel guests reclining on their chaises longues to a cinematic, yet soundless view of the Bavarian Alps. More importantly for some of those who come here, the insulation also ensures that the Zeitlos – in English, “timeless” – lounge is a refuge from mobile-phone coverage, which means no contact with exes, no scanning Facebook for updates, and no sending of recriminatory messages.
These days, breaking up is even harder to do, as social media and round-the-clock communication keep us connected to our former partners. Luckily for the lovesick, an increasing number of places are keen to help break the ties that bind them to past loves and help them to move on.
One of the most established of these can be found in Oberstdorf, a sport and health resort town in the southernmost tip of Bavaria. Two hours’ drive from Munich airport, this Alpine village, which looks like a picture on a schmaltzy Valentine’s chocolate box, is home to Schüle’s hotel and its pioneering Ich bin ganz bei mir – “Time for Me” – retreats.
The hotel’s three-day breaks are part of Die Liebeskümmerer, a Berlin-based counselling service for the broken-hearted – its name a German play on words: Liebeskummer, “heartache”, and kümmern, “to take care of”. Founder Elena-Katharina Sohn approached Karl-Arnold Schüle, the director of Schüle’s, 18 months ago with the idea of a residential break – a kind of holiday for the heartbroken.
“At first, I had to smile,” says the hotelier but, after discussions with Sohn and the in-house doctor, he realised the hotel was ideally suited for the purpose. Since then, he and his staff have made every effort to create bespoke trips that enable healing.
“We tend to each person individually,” explains Schüle. After arrival, guests are invited to consult with the doctor to build up a unique programme for their stay. Retreats might be composed of spa treatments, hiking and sporting activities, plus personal counselling. Special touches, “such as inspirational messages on cards left for guests on their pillow,” help make guests feel nurtured.
It’s easy to see why family-owned Schüle’s was selected. Its setting alone screams – or, rather, gently murmurs – reset. While the façade of the hotel looks like your typical Alpine resort accommodation, the back opens out to a view so clean and crisp it feels like a mental peppermint. The natural ridge of snowy peaks against the sky provides an epic backdrop to practically every public space in the hotel, including its two extensive spas.
What sets these retreats apart from the usual wellness breaks is the provision for mental health. Ulrike Fohn, an alternative practitioner and healer, is one of the Time for Me counsellors.
“Breaking up is a trauma,” she says, in a soothing voice. “It’s like you’ve outsourced the fulfilment of your most important needs. Then your partner breaks the contract. Suddenly, you feel like the ground has collapsed under your feet.”
In sessions that can last for up to four hours, Fohn helps guests recognise the unconscious thought and behaviour patterns that keep pushing them back into toxic situations and pain. “The key [to surviving a breakup] is: accept it,” she says. Struggling against reality isn’t helpful. “You’ve got to release the shock, the fear. You have to treat yourself with understanding and love.”
This message of self-love and understanding is central to the work done at Time for Me, and the results have been impressive. Of the 25 people who have so far experienced the retreat, many report feeling better. Some have already been back for a return visit.
One of the latter is Petra Stein (not her real name) who staggered into Schüle’s after her six-year relationship came to an end last year. As soon as she arrived, she says, “the Schüle family took me into their care”. Frau Schüle accompanied her on group hikes in the mountains. She had treatments and massages, revelled in the tranquillity of the hotel, and ate her fill every night at the restaurant. Before she got there, she says, “I hadn’t been able to eat for weeks and had lost 16kg”.
Stein met two other Die Liebeskümmerer clients who were visiting at the same time. They shared their stories, propped each other up – and continued to stay in touch after they left. Now close friends, they’ve since been back to Schüle’s for a return visit, and spent New Year’s Eve – that other notorious occasion for making singles feel ostracised – together in Berlin.
It seems these retreats can have a positive result, but is it really possible to recover from heartbreak in just a weekend? According to Die Liebeskümmerer founder, former PR consultant Elena-Katharina Sohn, that’s not the point: “We don’t just try to cure acute heartache, but work with you to change your perspective,” she says. Instead of rebound and revenge – two of the most common solutions – she focuses on self-healing, what she calls her Glücksherz (“happy heart”) technique. “In the short term, the quickest, most superficial way out of heartache is quickly to get a new partner. But this isn’t the answer,” she says. “I urge people to see that, hidden in their crisis of heartache, there’s an amazing opportunity to discover what sources of happiness there still are in their life.”
Sohn is an example of this positive perspective in action. Having founded Die Liebeskümmerer after a bad breakup, her work with fellow sufferers has helped her move on to the point that she can no longer remember when it happened. “Was it 2008? Or maybe 2009?”
After her catastrophic split, she “got in the car and drove off. Just drove anywhere for a while,” visiting friends in Germany and across the borders. “I discovered that the experience of distance was really good for me, so my initial idea was to start a travel agency to offer trips for the broken-hearted.”
Now Die Liebeskümmerer is a thriving industry. Eight therapists man her online and phone services, used by 5,000 people. She’s also written two books: Schluss mit Kummer, Liebes! (No More Anguish, Dear!) and Goodbye Herzschmerz (Goodbye Heartache). The latter will be published in Germany in March.
The growing popularity of her work isn’t surprising, given that relationship breakdowns are something we all experience. The healing of broken hearts is a business that’s preoccupied balladeers since the evolution of song, and although the acceleration of divorce rates has slowed somewhat in recent years – something that’s attributed to cohabitation – it still remains high. Sweden’s hit a 40-year watermark in 2014, while there were 13 divorces an hour in England and Wales in 2012.
Now many of us are wedded to our smartphones, there’s the additional problem that an ex’s online profiles are only a click away. Facebook is currently trialling a new Take a Break tool that will help screen you from your ex’s feed to help you achieve distance. Then there are websites such as Never Liked it Anyway and Exboyfriend Jewelry, which will help you turn physical reminders into cash, and The Breakup Shop, which will send a letter, email or text to your soon-to-be ex. In their shop, you can also order your ex a present, such as a Netflix gift card or box of cookies. (Their Poo Smell Card is currently sold out.)
Offline, the recognition that the lovesick deserve – and will pay for – special treatment is slowly filtering into the wellness industry. Time for Me is just one of the post-breakup offerings that have cropped up in the last year or so. Healing A Broken Heart Retreat at Jasmine House in south-west England, for example, runs two-, three- and four-day breaks (thejasminehouse.co.uk), while the Embracing Change programme at Ko Samui’s Kamalaya, lists breakups among various “troubling life transitions” it targets (kamalaya.com).
Balancing psychological therapies with spa treatments, these retreats fall into a category of “emotional detox” or “emotional wellness”. According to Kate Curtis, a therapist practising just outside Dublin, Ireland, the advantage of these retreats is that they can attract those who wouldn’t normally seek help. “I think they are very clever, because they take away some of the stigma attached from some of the psychology treatments that people might need to go for, that people would resist because of that stigma.”
She does warn, however, that participants should be aware of what they’re taking on. “A breakup can be the catalyst for opening up the gates,” she says. Healing is not a weekend- or even a week-long process. “You need to take care of yourself afterwards. Once a gate is opened, it’s important that it stays opened. It can contract a few days later, and that can be painful.”
Back at Schüle’s, it’s not clear who at the hotel is taking part in the Time for Me retreat; privacy is closely guarded. Certainly, though, no one is sobbing in corners, or showing other signs of obvious distress. On the contrary, most people seem to be out enjoying the winter sports of the resort, or lying around the spa with the white robes and unfocused gaze of the deeply relaxed.
And relaxing, looking out for yourself, is what you should be doing, according to Ulrike Fohn. “Treat yourself with great care and understanding. That means: get help. Go somewhere. Look to yourself.” Whether you believe in the power of emotional detox or not, taking time out after a breakup seems like good advice. And while you’re doing it, what’s the harm in choosing a place with two spas?
Norwegian flies to Munich from six destinations. Book flights, a hotel and a rental car at norwegian.com